ALL THIS IS not to say that only fancy wines are in demand in China. Less expensive, made-in-China wines are also on the market. Reiss says most of those wines are of very low quality. Sourced largely from imported bulk wines, they have lots of added sugar, which is supposed to mask flawed tastes. If you look hard enough, you might even find a bottle of this kind of wine in the United States. I picked up one for $5 in Chinatown in Washington, D.C., and it was undrinkable - to put it nicely.

The Chinese have a solution to this quality issue, though. "If you drink wine in bars or in karaoke places, you usually mix it up with ice and juice," Fu says.

Ice and juice. The juice is mostly for mixing with white wines. Red wines are often combined with lemon-lime soda. Blech.

"The biggest challenge in expanding the market for wine in China is that the consumers' overall understanding of wine is still very limited," says Don St. Pierre Jr., managing partner of ASC Fine Wines, one of the biggest wine importers and distributors in China.

Then again, St. Pierre points out that even those Chinese consumers who aren't buying wine are aware that it can be a finely crafted beverage. "That perception of wine is actually a big plus," he says, "because Chinese consumers perceive it as socially and culturally sophisticated, as more healthy than other alcoholic beverages, and in the case of red wine, as lucky because of the color. But the challenge is moving the consumer from this positive perception to a greater overall understanding of wine so the consumer is more comfortable and open to making wine part of their lifestyle."

The Chinese government is helping this cause considerably. It started promoting the perceived health benefits of drinking wine 20 years ago. Ten years ago, the government started serving wine at state functions for the first time. Fu says that it's having an impact. "Traditionally, Chinese people make friends and relationships by drinking together," he says. "Nobody used to care about health during drinking, but in recent years, that concept has changed. More and more Chinese people care about health, so they have changed to drinking red wines."

Those red wines, when they aren't semi-local bulk wines, are primarily French or Australian imports. American wines represent only a tiny portion of the market. But even that small slice is an improvement. At the beginning of the last decade, American wines were just a phantom in China. Today, at Cecconi's Italian on Saint Mark's Square in the Venetian Macao Resort Hotel, you can order a swell bottle of the sought-after California cult wine Opus One.